Urban Defense

The NY Times published an incredible article on the inner workings of ISIS. The big takeaways are that ISIS HQ is a well-run organization, and that the next evolution of terror will target cities.

The author describes the threat:

Mr. Sarfo explained that the Emni keeps many of its operatives underground in Europe. They act as nodes that can remotely activate potential suicide attackers who have been drawn in by propaganda. Linking them are what Mr. Sarfo called “clean men,” new converts to Islam with no established ties to radical groups. “These people are not in direct contact with these guys who are doing the attacks, because they know if these people start talking, they will get caught,” he said of the underground operatives. “They mostly use people who are new Muslims, who are converts,” he said. Those “clean” converts “get in contact with the people, and they give them the message.”

As ISIS evolves, its core operations will transform. In counter-terror speak, it is metastasizing — going from a centrally run-and-managed operation, like al Qaeda pre-9/11, to a distributed network of terror nodes.

The Times article goes on to describe how young men are being trained in Syria — only for a few days so they do not raise flags with western intelligence — then sent home. Once they return home, they can either recruit and lead a terror node or carry out a terror attack.

As this threat further evolves and decentralizes, the defense posture in cities must keep pace.

Since 9/11/01, the New York City Policy Department has developed its own counter-terror force. This CT force has a range of world-class capabilities — intelligence, chemical-bio-nuclear, terror threat analysis, and a joint terrorist task force that collaborates with federal and international partners.

But NYC is an outlier. As seen in Paris, most cities are unprepared for networked and sophisticated terror operations.

Cities are especially vulnerable because their decision-making institutions are slow and their people are disconnected from one another. If you want to experience loneliness in a crowd, travel on the NYC subway.

To make our cities safer, we should apply threat-centric innovation — both institutionally and individually. For decision-making urban institutions — think government agencies and other large institutions — threat-centric innovation will come from unexpected places. The possibilities are only limited by creativity.

The Mayor’s office would partner with a big data startup (or many big data startups) to better understand localized, real-time information trends. The police department would work with returning veterans to understand guerilla tactics. The transportation department would work with a drone expert to understand system vulnerabilities.

On an individual level, imagine a neighborhood (or city) association designing a see-something, say-something mobile system to crowdsource threat monitoring. Every concerned citizen becomes a data-beacon and every threat is analyzed by the system.

Unfortunately, the line between crime and terrorism is rapidly disappearing. If someone is going to commit a murder, why not try to make the heinous act somehow radically courageous by swearing allegiance to ISIS? For the newly radicalized, the distance between armed robbery and murder is limited. This is all made more difficult — and timely — by a digital community that celebrates barbarism.

The military has a saying: to defeat the enemy, you must think like the enemy. If we’re going to improve our urban defenses, we must start thinking about the contest like our adversary — distributed and fast-acting.


Originally published on August 4, 2016.

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